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Duchess Meghan wins legal fees from tabloid in privacy lawsuit; judge rejects publisher's appeal

Maria Puente, USA TODAY
·6 min read

Duchess Meghan of Sussex won a preliminary payment of about $625,000 towards her $2 million legal costs from the losing tabloid publisher in her privacy infringement lawsuit, a British judge ruled Tuesday.

But she didn't get the front-page apology she demanded. Not yet, anyway.

At a virtual hearing in London, the judge, Mark Warby, also rejected Associated Newspapers' application for permission to appeal, saying there was no real prospect of another court reaching a different conclusion.

But he said the publisher of the Mail on Sunday and MailOnline still has the right to renew the application to a Court of Appeals judge.

Associated Newspapers said it would do so, as a spokesman for the publisher told The Daily Mail that it was disappointed with the judge's decision.

In a written submission to the court, Associated Newspapers’ lawyer, Antony White, said his clients believe a bid to overturn Warby’s ruling last month in Meghan's favor “would have a real prospect of success.”

Prince Harry and Duchess Meghan of Sussex arrive for the unveiling of a plaque dedicating native bush to the Queen's Commonwealth Canopy project in Auckland, New Zealand, on Oct. 30, 2018.
Prince Harry and Duchess Meghan of Sussex arrive for the unveiling of a plaque dedicating native bush to the Queen's Commonwealth Canopy project in Auckland, New Zealand, on Oct. 30, 2018.

The hearing Tuesday was scheduled after Warby granted Meghan summary judgment in her contentious lawsuit against the tabloid and its owners for violating her privacy in February 2019, when it published five stories featuring parts of a private letter she wrote to her estranged father, Thomas Markle, following her 2018 wedding to Prince Harry.

The hearing covered multiple issues in the aftermath of Meghan's victory in the case, including damages, legal fees and a still outstanding question about whether Meghan was the "sole" author of her letter to her father.

Under copyright law, the author of a private letter owns the copyright and thus her permission is needed in order to publish it. But Associated Newspapers contends that several palace officials helped Meghan write the letter. The publisher hopes to call Meghan and those officials to be cross-examined about her intentions and who else might hold authorship.

More: Will Harry and Meghan reveal 'shocking' royal secrets? What to expect from their Oprah interview

The judge set a hearing for October to take up the issue of copyright ownership.

Meghan also sought a front-page apology from the Mail on Sunday and a court order that the newspaper hand over any copies of the letter, and to destroy any electronic copies of it or any notes made about it. She also wanted all the stories about the letter to be removed from the paper's website.

Ian Mill, one of Meghan's lawyers, said in a written submission to the court that “the defendant defiantly continues to do the very acts which the court has held are unlawful.”

The publisher's lawyers agreed to remove the articles from the website until the remaining legal issues are resolved. The judge didn't immediately rule on the request to hand over the letter.

Warby's ruling last month, which came after more than a year of hearings and briefs, said a full trial on all issues in the case, set for the fall, was unnecessary, thus ending the case in Meghan's favor.

In a statement, Meghan called out the Mail on Sunday for "illegal and dehumanizing practices."

"For these outlets, it’s a game," her statement said. "For me and so many others, it’s real life, real relationships, and very real sadness. The damage they have done and continue to do runs deep."

Associated Newspapers was surprised and disappointed by the ruling and suggested at the time it might appeal. But losers in civil cases such as this have to first get permission from the ruling judge to appeal, and then go directly to a higher court if they are turned down.

More: It’s final: Harry and Meghan won’t return as working royals

Another outstanding issue involves the authorship of the letter. Did Meghan write it all herself or did she get substantial help from her former palace press staff, and if so, why?

Under British law (and American law), the authorship of a private letter belongs to the writer, not the recipient; therefore, when Thomas Markle gave the Mail on Sunday a copy of her letter and the paper published excerpts, that was a violation of copyright law.

But if members of Meghan's former palace staff helped her write the letter, in part or substantially, that might lead to another hearing at which the Mail on Sunday could call Meghan, her father, her former staffers and her friends to testify, which would mean days of gossipy and embarrassing testimony to tease tabloid readers.

"The (Mail on Sunday) is arguing that if she sought assistance of the (palace staffers) and they contributed to the letter, they might be joint authors and thus joint owners," says Amber Melville-Brown, head of the media and reputation practice at international law firm Withers, who has been closely following the Sussex battles with the media.

"If they can cross-examine her and them, they may be able to get to the purposes she sought their involvement and her intentions. They would see if it goes to whether she had reasonable expectation that her letter would stay private."

The lawyer for the tabloid, White, argued in January at a hearing that Meghan had no reasonable expectation of privacy for her letter because “it’s to be inferred that the letter was written and sent by the claimant with a view to it being disclosed to third parties and read by the public.”

Meanwhile, British law also holds that losers in lawsuits not only have to pay damages, which are capped at a lower level than in the United States, they also have to pay the winner's legal fees.

Meghan's legal team had asked for a little over $2 million in legal costs and they got at least part of what they sought, with "further financial remedies" to be dealt with later, the judge ruled.

Meghan has said she would donate any damages she receives to charity.

The former American actress Meghan Markle married Prince Harry in May 2018 at Windsor Castle, a wedding watched by millions but not attended by her father, who said he was hospitalized for heart problems in California.

A pedestrian passes by the Royal Courts Of Justice, in London, Jan. 19, 2021.
A pedestrian passes by the Royal Courts Of Justice, in London, Jan. 19, 2021.

After the wedding, Meghan, now the Duchess of Sussex, wrote to her father about their estrangement. This letter came to light when anonymous friends of the duchess mentioned it in a People magazine interview, and eventually the Mail obtained a copy from Thomas Markle and published parts of it in several stories in February 2019.

She filed her lawsuit in October 2019, arguing among other legal issues that publishing the letter without her permission violated long-established copyright law.

As the case moved through the British civil court, Meghan won some rulings and lost others. In May 2020, parts of her lawsuit were deleted in a ruling, leaving her the loser in an opening legal bout but keeping alive her core complaints of copyright and privacy infringement.

The couple announced in January 2020 that they were stepping away from their senior royal roles and moving to North America to pursue more freedom, financial independence and privacy.

They now live in Santa Barbara County as budding Hollywood producers, having signed deals with Netflix and Spotify to produce documentary and entertainment content.

Contributing: The Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Meghan Markle wins legal fees from tabloid; judge rejects appeal